Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Jasmin Lange. Jasmin holds a PhD in book history and master’s degree in business management. Before joining Brill, she worked for Ernst Klett in Germany, Blackwell’s in the UK and for an international academic network based at the University of Edinburgh. After moving to Brill in 2011, she specialized in mergers & acquisitions, new business models, licensing, and open access. In January 2018, she was appointed Chief Publishing Officer and a member of Brill’s Executive Committee.
This is an article about a 336-year old publishing house, its endeavors in open access (OA) and, of course, about Plan S as the title stipulates. It is also an article about how the last 12 months have changed my perspective on academic publishing. My approach to the topic, which I first presented as the closing keynote at the STM conference in Washington in April (slides available here), is a slow one and I am asking the reader for patience while I develop my arguments.
Brill was founded in 1683 and publishes more than 1,200 books and 320 journals in fields such as History, Classics, Philosophy, Religion, Law, and Area Studies. Among traditional Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) publishers we have been one of the early movers in OA (by which in this article I mean gold or diamond OA unless otherwise specified). Since 2009 we have invested in OA workflows, trained and hired staff to push our OA program, and developed models for all formats and content types. In a typical Dutch way we have been pragmatic and at the same time prepared to experiment: we have participated in Knowledge Unlatched (KU) as of year one; we have set up megajournals (and closed them down); we have flipped and backflipped; and, more generally speaking, we have looked for sustainable models that work for our communities. So here is the Gretchenfrage: have our OA endeavors of the last ten years been successful? Have our investments paid back? Germans are known for their wonderous word combinations and one of those word combinations is the best possible answer to this question: JEIN – which is a combination of the words JA and NEIN.
First, regarding the JA: our 2019 journal list includes 19 fully-OA journals of which 14 are diamond. In addition, we have a small offsetting deal with Dutch universities and can offer free OA in around 30 international law journals for authors based at these institutions. We have published more than 370 OA books to date – and all of them with a sustainable OA fee.
As for the NEIN, here are some other, more sobering figures: depending on who you ask, 20 to 30% of all research articles are published via OA. However, at Brill we only publish 8% of our articles and 4% of our book frontlist as OA. Less than 2% of our current revenue is derived from those publications. Evidently, and despite all our efforts, we are not only lagging behind the industry average, but there is a misbalance between output and revenue which questions the long-term sustainability of our OA activities.
It was very clear to me, even before Plan S came along, that Brill urgently needed a plan to accelerate OA. Yes, we could carry on running journals that have 50 to 100 subscriptions and sell an average of 200 copies of the books we publish. But if we continued to do so, would we really do justice to the research that is entrusted to us? Would this be the most impactful way of disseminating scholarly research in the digital age? Were we to delete the last few hundred years of publishing history and start from scratch, the answer would clearly be no. Whenever we publish an OA article in a hybrid journal, the number of downloads is embarrassingly high — or rather, the downloads of paywalled articles are embarrassingly low in comparison. So, clearly we needed a plan. We needed a plan for Brill but probably for all of HSS. While there are some great OA publishing initiatives like the Open Library of Humanities, UCL Press, and Language Science Press, our disciplines are generally far less open than other fields.
A little more than a year ago there were rumours about a grand OA plan which developed quickly into a storm that gripped us all. My initial reaction to the plans of Robert-Jan Smits was very similar to the reaction of friends and colleagues in other smaller publishing houses: this is not going to work for us, this is not the plan we needed, this is a plan devised for STM journal publishing. We’ll be excluded from a push to more openness while the big guys can adapt and have it all. There is very little funding in HSS and Article Processing Charge (APC) driven models have more or less failed in our fields. How could Plan S accelerate OA in the fields we publish in? Would it not be likely to hinder the ongoing transition and make us publish even less OA articles than we already do?
Before I get into Plan S and its suitability for the humanities, I would like to take a step back and share three lessons which I have learned during the last 12 months.
In June 2017 Stephen Buranyi asked in The Guardian: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science? I am not referring to this well-known piece because I agree with everything Buranyi says. I am referring to it because it says so much about how large parts of the research community perceive academic publishers. Statements, or better call them judgements, about our industry, which you can find on listservs and social media, are often sharply critical and passionately negative. We all know what some in the research community think of us, so I am not going to repeat the arguments. During the last years, our reputation has not improved, on the contrary, the frustration got a name and the name was Plan S.
Before Plan S, I would have never said “we” and I would have never taken anti-publisher comments on Twitter personally. I would not have related the criticism of academic publishers to the company I work for. Brill is not meant here, I would have thought, not this publishing house with the long tradition, beautiful books and sustainable margins, this quasi-university press as we see ourselves. Rather, I would have pointed my finger at others, and I think many of us are doing the same. Smaller publishers point at the slightly bigger ones; family businesses at publishers owned by shareholders; not-for-profits think they are more ethical than commercial publishers; and in the end we blame the big five. And the big five blame each other. We are all pointing fingers at each other.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are small or big, not-for-profit or commercial. We are all actors in the same market and we all face the same expectations of funders, librarians, researchers and their institutions. At the end of the day, the disappointment about the slow transition to OA and the poor reputation of academic publishers is affecting us all. We are all confronted with the same mandates and policies and with funders, librarians and authors that don’t trust us anymore.
Over the past 12 months I have come to understand that, no matter how small and mission-driven we are, we too need to take responsibility for restoring the reputation of the industry and trust in academic publishers. In order to achieve this, a constructive and open dialogue with all our stakeholders is just as indispensable as making transparency one of our key business principles: transparency of our peer review processes, transparency of our policies to avoid double-dipping and transparency of the value we add to a researcher’s work, to name just a few. The business we are in is far from broken as some on the outside think it is, but it is a big black box and this needs to change.
In April 2016 the Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science pushed for immediate open access to scientific papers by 2020. Plan S is less ambitious but clearly wants to see an extensive growth of OA during the next five years. No matter which timeline or percentage we aim for, if we ever want to come even close to achieving full OA, the long tail of publishers needs to be able to move to OA as well. Our industry leaders play a key role in developing new products, services and business models. The thousands of small and medium-size publishers, however, deliver a specialized service, in particular for smaller research fields. We are trusted experts, we are smart innovators and we are close to the communities we serve. Funders and research bodies should be supportive of this variety and be careful with devising policies that could lead to further concentration in the market.
For small and medium-size publishers it is more important than ever to come together and collaborate. The public consultation on Plan S was valuable and brought diverse voices on OA to the fore which only increased the quality of the discussion. For Brill, the consultation resulted in a stimulating alliance with more than 40 HSS publishers across Europe and the US who came together to share their concerns about Plan S and to discuss ideas for a constructive way forward.
In the long term, publishers like Brill need strong industry bodies who are willing to represent the entire range of organizations that are active in scholarly communication. We need such organizations to represent our interests, to inform us and to provide an open-minded platform for discussion. Positive leadership and a collaborative approach are required to support small and medium-size organizations in a transition to OA which needs to be “efficient”, “fair” and “transparent” – to use the words of Coalition S.
The Humanities are different – and that’s a good thing. The Humanities are not slow, or old-fashioned, or niche, or not quite there yet – as is sometimes claimed. The humanities are valuable, relevant, critical, innovative, and exciting, and they have distinctive methods that lead to a distinctive publication tradition. (Print) books are the preferred publication form and we are cross-financing this part of the business with our journals. Journal communities are smaller, content is more varied (think of book reviews) and we have more local language publishing. Scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences have less access to funding to pay for APCs which is one of the reasons why the transition to OA has been slower than in other areas.
It is widely recognized that HSS and its publishing industry are different (and less profitable). As a publisher in those fields, one could easily be tempted to ask funders for exceptions to policies that push for a faster transition to OA – out of fear that we might become collateral damage in a process that hit us like a storm. One year after Plan S, I think to do so would be a huge mistake.
It is very simple: if we ask for exceptions for HSS, the research we publish will not be able to transition to open with the same speed as STM. As a consequence, HSS research would not be visible as much, would generate less impact and would be even more pushed to the background when budgets are distributed. HSS would be left behind.
We not only need to accelerate OA – increase the speed of transition – but, more importantly, we need to expand the possibilities to transition to OA beyond the APC model. HSS research is highly relevant and deserves to be open. By being more open, HSS can have a greater impact on society and contribute more efficiently to making this world a better place. As HSS publishers, we need to speak up for the communities we serve and help them defend their position in a competitive research landscape. With the right plan for a transition to more openness, HSS will not only survive but thrive in the future and unfold their full potential.
Plan S was a shock to the system, but after twenty years of OA movement this shock was necessary to make real progress. Thanks to Plan S, and the discussion that followed, Brill and many other publishers are shifting gears in their OA strategy. The conversations I had with Coalition S were difficult in the beginning, but quickly developed into a productive and open exchange of ideas on how we could accelerate OA in HSS. The representatives of the Coalition listened to many of the concerns of smaller publishers, which is visible in the revised guidelines.
Some complain that the guidelines still lack clarity. Instead of waiting for further instructions, I think it is time for publishers to get back in the driver’s seat and do what we are here for: develop and implement publishing models that fit the needs of our customers for high quality open research. Plan S offers several ways to publish publicly funded research OA articles. My two cents on the ten principles, guidelines and revised guidelines as well as all OA policies to come are as follows:
- Green OA is an interim solution, a quick fix. We will adjust our policy, if need be, for subscription journals that have no other route to compliance yet. However, green OA is not future-proof as it will not lead to a “definitive shift towards new models of academic publishing”.
- A definitive shift can only be accomplished if subscription funds are moved to pay for OA publishing services. We will experiment with models to achieve this (e.g., Subscribe to Open) and such models should be supported by all stakeholders. University institutions and their libraries should play a key role in that process.
- Consortia and institutions that aim for transformative agreements should engage with smaller publishers and not limit their negotiations to the big players in the field. A limitation, as practical as it may be, will lead to further concentration in the market. Transparent model agreements as proposed in the revised guidelines could be a means to support this.
- Due to the limited availability of funding for APCs, the hybrid model is relatively small in HSS. Nevertheless, for some journal communities it is currently the only sustainable path to a more open future. The library and publishing community should come together and agree on fair policies to avoid double dipping for hybrid and transformative journals.
- Book publishing is different to journal publishing, not only because it still relies heavily on print revenues. Publishers have acquired substantial experience in OA book publishing and should be involved in developing policies right from the start.
In Brill’s canteen we have an enchantingly elegant chimney piece by Dutch painter Nicolaas Reyers on display. The picture dates from 1750 and used to hang in the stately home of family Luchtmans, the founders of Brill. Reyers’ piece depicts Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, the arts and classical learning, and Hermes, god of travel and trade. As such it is an allegory for the close link that has existed between the book industry and academia for hundreds of years. OA is the logical consequence of the digital transformation of scholarly publishing. More than 500 years after the invention of the printing press, those entrepreneurs in the book industry that are willing to take a risk have the opportunity to disseminate knowledge and information in better ways than ever before. Will it be easy? Certainly not. Can we do it alone? Definitely not. We can only succeed if the entire research community is willing to work together and not against each other. As John-Arne Røttingen, CEO of the Research Council of Norway, said in one of my conversations with Coalition S: ”Libraries, publishers, funders, authors, we all need to hold hands, take the risk and jump.” It’s exciting times and I look forward to the collective jump.